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  • Writer's pictureStacey Evers

Nowhere to go but up: growing big harvests in small spaces

Successful small-space gardening tips from Casandra Lawson, who's mastered the art.

Meet Casandra for a free talk and tour of her Franconia District Park garden plot (6432 Bowie Dr., Springfield) at 11 am on May 14.

It looks like a regular, well-kept townhouse in a regular, well-kept townhouse community. Carefully tended plants grace the front steps and arc around the side of the house. And then you realize that the groundcover is actually thick rows of carefully groomed Alpine strawberries, and that blueberries, huckleberries, lingonberries, dwarf tomatoes, purple and Thai basil, thyme, oregano, chard, habanero pepper and rosemary are what make up the landscaping in this highly visible front-yard garden (see photo below).

Casandra Lawson, a gardener for Hands On Harvests’ Grow A Row program, has made the most out of her small space, teaching herself how to maximize production largely through YouTube and reading. When she opens the gate of her fenced backyard, there’s no preparing for the mini-farm inside. Plants climb tall trellises in raised beds, spill from 6-foot-tall towers, and emerge from grow pots and containers on the edges.

Casandra has been gardening for 10 years, but her interest in food and cooking has been lifelong. She pinpoints her passion’s focus on local, sustainable food to 2008, when she joined the Potomac Vegetable Farms CSA.

“Going to PVF's Vienna location to pick up my weekly share sparked my interest in growing food,” she says. “At the time I only had an apartment balcony, but I started composting my food scraps. (Probably ill-advised in multi-family housing :)).”

A few years later, now a homeowner and a new member of the PVF farm crew, she built two 2'x3' raised beds. Every year since, she’s added gardening space. In 2019, she also started growing in a plot in a nearby community garden. She estimates that she harvests about 5 lbs a week July-September.

Her gardens are chock-full of plants, but the spaces are beautiful and orderly. This isn’t by accident.

“I spend the short, dark days of winter getting inspired and planning for the next season.” she says. “I often make detailed spreadsheets with varieties, days to maturity, seed starting and transplanting dates. I also do rough sketches of each bed or container. I love every second of garden planning but the truth is the plan ends up being a rough guide that's executed very imperfectly.”

By midsummer, Casandra turns her attention to the fall/winter gardens. She says, “This planning is harder because by July I'm usually running out of garden gusto and it's blazing hot outside.”

Some of the credit for the gardens’ high production goes to no-till gardening, which Casandra learned by watching the “No Dig” YouTube videos of British geographer and gardener Charles Dowding. She builds her soil in the spring by adding a layer of compost, which she plants directly in rather than mixing with the existing soil. “There's enough required manual labor in the garden and for me avoiding tillage has been worth it,” she says.

She considers gardening a therapy. “I spend so much time in the garden because it's where I feel the most at ease. My YouTube garden mentor [Roots and Refuge’s Jessica Sowards] says the best medicine for the garden is the gardener. And for me the best medicine for the gardener has been the garden. There's always something to be done and it's physically demanding but the beauty and bounty that I reap, well, there's nothing else like it.”

Casandra keeps stress out of the garden by sticking to an “It’s all an experiment” gardening ethic, which also pushes her to try new varieties. That way, she says, “when something fails, I get to harvest knowledge.”

For several years, she’s been experimenting with growing vertically to maximize her space. By trellising her tomatoes, she can underplant them with chard, lettuce, herbs and bunching onions. (She recommends A Trellis to Make You Jealous, a YouTube video that shows viewers how to build a trellis in under 5 minutes.)

Growing in towers also has expanded her production significantly. In her GreenStalk tower gardens, she can grow 30 to 90 plants in 2 square feet on her townhome patio. “I didn't have space for any more garden beds, but the towers allowed me to grow vertically.”

Casandra's tips for growing in towers

· Like any container you have to stay on top of watering or your plant babies will not be happy. That often means daily+ watering once it gets hot.

· Avoid putting all of your large, hungry plants in one tower. They will shade each other out. I tried growing an entire tower with mostly solanaceae crops but many of them grew leggy reaching or more sunlight.

· If some tiers are not being watered properly, you probably need to disassemble the tower and clean out the water reservoirs. I recently discovered that the holes can get plugged up.

Favorite varieties

An avid seed-saver, Casandra likes to try out different varieties of seeds, buying most of hers at Home Depot, Baker Creek and MIgardener (which is offering 50% off seeds right now on its website). Some of her faves:

· Favorite small tomato “by far”: Atomic Grape' from Baker Creek. “It's streaky and multicolored and tastes amazing.” (note to myself: show photo)

· “Shishito” and “Murasaki”. Casandra describes these as “peppers for those of us who can only seem to yield one bell pepper a year. These Japanese varieties are prolific producers.” She buys her seeds from Baker Creek.

· Slicer tomatoes: “Dr. Wyches” and “Climbing Triple Crop”.

· Others: “Verde de taglio” swiss chard, “Black-seeded Simpson” lettuce, “Purple Opal” basil, “Texas Hill Country” okra, and lemon thyme.

Favorite gardening resources:

Youtube (in addition to MIgardener and Charles Dowding, mentioned in the main story):

· Epic Gardening (his goal is to teach 10 million people to grow food and connect to nature)

· The Rusted Garden (in our region - Maryland)


· The Beautiful Edible Garden (Bennet & Bittner)

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